Clearly, less than one mile per hour isn’t exactly a feat of speed when traveling on foot. But, when traveling on foot through the Arizona desert heat chasing waterfalls, speed isn’t the key factor... it’s all about the experience.
My journey began when I first learned about the Havasupai Indian Reservation a few years ago, thanks to the magical powers of the internet. I saw some sort of viral video that plastered clips of turquoise water being met with a violent roar from waterfalls that exceeded 100 foot gushes over cliffs above the pools. At the time, I wasn’t an avid hiker by any stretch of the imagination, so the 20-mile round trip hike seemed more like a farfetched idea than an actual possibility. But last month, I experienced those waterfalls in real life, in the flesh. As I made my way through security at McCarran International Airport to begin my travels home on Thursday, October 19, 2017, I blinked in disbelief. Just last month, I trekked across the Arizona desert. Just last month, I was in those blue waters. Just last month, I completed the most intense adventure I’ve ever taken.
The Day Before: Calming the Nerves
Before I take any trip, there is usually a healthy amount of travel anxiety, but it’s like a manageable dose of adrenaline that I crave. The sneaking tingle happens when I make my first plans to travel somewhere new, & the electric current running through my brain only intensifies the closer I get to my departure. I purchased my permit for this trip when they first became available in February 2017, meaning this was an eight-month long planning phase that involved some logistics, research, & preparation unlike any other trip I have taken so far. This would be my maiden voyage in backpacking. And in backpacking alone. My original intent was to take a group of adventure buddies, but this hike required a permit that comes in high demand with an upfront cost & limited availability — to lay it down for you, permits for the 2017 season sold out completely in about five days. I feel extremely fortunate that I was able to snag one permit for one overnight, but I remember how daunting & real it felt when I received my permit confirmation email. Holy crap, I’m really doing this. Alone.
I pride myself on how little I can pack for a week-long trip (one small backpack suffices), but this adventure would be quite different than my other trips. I laid out & packed everything that I thought I might need, with my boyfriend, Ian, looking over my shoulder. I think he was mentally calculating the ounces & the excess I was packing. Unlike my other trips, I wouldn’t be able to rid myself of the extra weight of spare clothes or a makeup bag. I couldn’t stash my extra amenities in a hotel drawer or in a spare bedroom. This was my first backpacking trip, which meant that I was definitely over packing, Probably for the first time in my life, ever. Everything I would be taking had to have a specific purpose on the trail, everything had to be considered a necessity, & everything I was taking had to fit as a carry-on item. If I checked the backpack & it didn’t land in Vegas with me, then I would have zero gear for the hike... & although I was heading to Vegas, land of gambling & alleged luck, I wasn’t willing to bet my trail necessities. No gear, no hike. Period.
When I got home from work on Saturday night, I was feeling allllllllll of the nerves, making sure I had packed every item I needed, wondering if there was something obvious that I had forgotten about. I sat down at my computer to hand write the directions to the trailhead, the trail descriptions, & extra information that I thought would be valuable to have. I took screenshots of trail tips & advice from the hikers who had gone before me. Ian was sitting across from me at the table, & I felt his gaze fall in my vicinity. I looked up, knowing that the combination of worry, stress, & excitement in my eyes was impossible to conceal. “You okay?” He asked. I couldn’t even speak, so I just nodded my head & smiled. He laughed out loud, totally calling my bluff. In that moment, he encouraged me that I was capable of anything. He reminded me that I was strong, adventurous, & brave, that this trip was going to be an unforgettable experience. I could feel my confidence growing in every word he spoke to me. Megan, you can do this, you’re fine. I swear, I said that to myself at least a dozen times in less than a second, but I slowly began believing those words.
Day One: Getting to Vegas
I woke up to my noisy alarm, glared at my borrowed Osprey pack, & wanted to cry. What was I thinking? Could I really do this? Looking at all the straps & buckles, I knew I needed to repack, to shed some weight from the excess I had stuffed inside the 85 liter capacity. I decided that I wouldn’t need any extra clothes for my return flight, so long as I found a laundromat in one of the tiny towns on my return drive from Supai. Done. I packed every layer imaginable for the hike in: shorts, capris, pants, rain pants, cami, tank top, tech tee, long sleeve, & rain jacket, complete with an ungodly amount of socks. I laid out my items again, one by one, shedding every single non-necessity & it made all the difference in boosting my ability to carry this pack through the airport & the canyon. I was glad I listened to my instincts about re-packing, because my tent poles somehow didn’t make it into the Osprey pack. What good would my tent have been without poles? Not a very good one. This further fed my doubts that I wasn’t cut out for a solo backpacking trip 1,278 miles away from home. But by the time I repacked my bag & put my boots on, my flight was departing in less than two hours. I didn’t have any more time to negotiate with myself about whether I was equipped or ready for the trail I would later be walking. Now was the time to just walk. One foot in front of the other.
Second to my nerves, the only other hurdle to the trip was coordinating my flights. As a non-rev passenger (non-revenue standby), I am only given a seat if there happens to be an unoccupied seat on the flight that I want. My permit was for Tuesday, October 17 - Wednesday, October 18, so my original plan was to fly into Vegas on Monday, pickup the rental car, & head straight for the trailhead four & one-half hours away. Knowing, however, that I had a permit for a specific date that was non-refundable & didn’t allow for changes of any kind, I didn’t want to take any chance of missing my one opportunity at Havasupai. As the departure date approached, I decided to fly out on Sunday morning to eliminate the standby travel stress, & to give myself some wiggle room in case any of the flight plans were to go awry. Plus, a day lounging by the pool at Excalibur didn’t sound too shabby... & that’s precisely what I did on Sunday.
Despite the stares & gawks from passengers, I felt a slight surge of pride. I wasn’t self-conscious of the fact that I looked like a displaced foreigner in an unknown world. I was simply proud of the journey that brought me to this moment, where I was standing solo in a terminal with all of life’s necessities strapped to my back, feeling mostly confident & prepared for the dusty desert floor that I would be conquering in less than 36 hours.
I took a bus to my hotel for the night, Excalibur, & laid down on the comfortable threads for a thirty-minute nap. I hardly slept, still reeling in disbelief that I was attempting Havasu, a trip that I had been planning for the last eight months. I unpacked my gear & carefully laid it out, grabbing my swimsuit & sunscreen so I could relax by the pool in the warm glow of the Nevada sunshine. I didn’t bother getting in the water because the sun felt so good on my skin. The weather in Montana had been grey & cloudy for days on end; I was just pleased to see a blue sky. I took some time to walk the Strip afterwards, where I watched the Bellagio water fountains dance to synchronized music, took photographs of the themed hotels, & walked through designer fashion malls where I saw purses that cost more than my annual income. I treated myself to corn dogs & tater-tots for dinner before retiring to my room to fall asleep while watching true-crime dramas.
Day Two: Getting to the Trailhead
The sun was setting so heavily behind a trio of peaks that they were illuminated by shades of gold & black, while the mountains to the east caught the reflection & turned the mountains from pinks into purples. I wanted to pull over for a photograph so I could relive that sunset over & over again, but concluded that I wanted the magnificence of that moment to live in my imagination. Some moments, some experiences, are best remembered as simple a memory.
When I reached the trailhead on Monday night, the sky was only glowing by the thousands of stars that twinkled above me. The sky was so crystal clear, I felt like I was back home in Montana. I settled into my car-camping routine & carefully packed my gear for the last time. This was it, this was my final eight hours of the calm before the storm.
Day Three: Chasing Waterfalls
I woke up every two hours, & again six minutes before my 4:30 A.M. alarm. I blinked the area around me into focus & peeked out the car windows. I could see one street lamp, three porta-potties, a fence, & two building structures. I could see & hear the occasional group of hikers before they disappeared into the darkness. Judging which direction they turned after dissolving into the early morning was impossible to tell. I used the bathroom & greeted two other hikers before retrieving my pack from the van. I sat on the bumper, pulling the straps over my shoulders & around my waist. I stood up, balancing the weight on my back & adjusting the straps to a comfortable tension, so the weight was baring on my hips & not my shoulders. This was it.
I readjusted my headlamp & began walking towards the porta-potties, attempting to use the minute light source from my headlamp to guide my feet to the trailhead. With no clear markings or signs to designate where the trail began, I trusted my judgment & began descending on the beaten rock path that surrounded the porta-pots. The descent was immediately steep & I was feeling confident that I was on the right path. As I placed one foot in front of the other, the reality set in that I was going into the canyon, in the dead of night, by myself. The nagging anxieties began tugging at my ability to think straight, so I stopped, watched the swirling dust I had kicked up with my boots, & looked over the ledge of the canyon. With the aid of my headlamp, I could see nothing except for the trail itself where the spotlight was easily directed by a swivel of my neck. I kept walking, one step at a time, following the switchbacks & the piles of white rocks that guided hikers in the right direction.
I jumped & my heart literally stopped beating when I saw a field mouse scurry across the path, moving so quickly that he was a mere shadow bolting in front of me. When my blood pressure leveled, I laughed at how scared one teeny, tiny mouse had made me. I caught my breath & kept walking, my hips beginning to feel rickety with each descending step. You can do this. Keep walking. I must have said this to myself, sometimes out loud, at least every 100 yards. I eventually stopped & turned around, to see if I was making any head way on the trail, & I could see a blinking light where the trail began & a fury of headlamps from other hikers making the same descent. I was finally able to trade my anxiety for pride, feeling equipped & confident that I could actually make this journey alone. Until I came to a fork in the trail, where there were two defined routes that I could take. I stayed to the right & began counting my paces so I could find my way back to the fork if I had made the wrong turn. Little did I know at the time, that every fork in the trails up to this point would lead to the same trail below the canyon.
The sky was still full of bright stars, surrounded by the pitch black darkness of the early morning with an absent moon. I felt like I was on another planet entirely, but as the morning wore on, I began to see rough outlines of the canyon above me, almost like a painting. And then it happened, the glorious sunrise. I was overjoyed when I removed my headlamp, having a front-row seat for the transition of night to day. The clouds went from a lifeless grey to a vibrant orange & yellow as the desert around me filled with light. I “pulled over” so I could grab my camera & stow my headlamp & hat. Some other hikers caught up to me by this point, & we exchanged greetings to each other while I sifted through my belongings. Judging by my time & by the trail conditions, I was only about two or three miles in.
While I physically wandered, so too did my mind. The wild has a way of bringing perspective & clarity where there may have once been none. My imagination ran away from me, imagining the falls themselves, the journey that brought me here, my family, Ian & the countless broken hearts that brought us to each other. The canyon was so quiet that I could hear the wind passing through a crow’s wings as it flew above me. I caught my breath & breathed in motion with its wings, being soothed by the comfort in that sound. A bit later, I was scrambling among some white boulders when I met two other females on the trail. “First time?” they asked. Oh man, is it that obvious? I smiled & nodded. “Keep going, you’re about halfway from here!” I couldn’t believe how quickly the time was passing. Just a few seconds prior, I thought I was only two or three miles in.
I was grateful for my early start, as most of the canyon was consumed by shade. The closer I got to the village, the less shade I encountered. But then I saw it: the little square sign standing in the sunshine, covered in stickers from the hikers who wanted to leave their marks of home in the desert. “Supai” with an arrow directing me to the left of the canyon. I swear, I could hear the falls from here (turned out to only be the river), & I felt like I had hit my second wind. My legs felt stronger, my pack felt lighter, & so I carried on through the sun.
I passed a pack of horses being led by one of the Indians when I noticed that one of the horses was carrying USPS crates. I witnessed the only Pony Express that is still in operation today, & I laughed while practically skipping along the trail. Is this real life?
The further I walked, the more frequent the signs became directing me to the village. I crossed a bridge over turquoise water & the trail quickly turned to sand, making it that much harder to walk. And then all of a sudden, I saw houses. I saw fences that contained livestock. I saw Indian people out & about. I saw Supai... & I can’t say that I have ever been happier in my entire life. I followed the sand & dirt roads to the Tourism Office, where I verified my identity to pickup my permits & maps. I also picked up a patch, because tradition is tradition. The female worker placed a yellow wristband around my right wrist & gave me a pink tag to attach to my tent once I reached the campground. From this point, I still had two miles to go before getting to the campground. Two miles to go before I could drop the weight of my pack & play in the falls, but I was so close at this point that I had an energetic pep in every single step.
As I walked through the village, I quietly observed the homes & the yards. I began imagining how on earth they got building supplies here, how they were able to get full-size trampolines here, & how they were able to supply their horses with feed. Taking it all in was exhausting. I could only replay memories of past moves, remembering how obnoxious it was to carry boxes from the porch to the car. But this? These people likely had to use helicopters & horses to get even everyday commodity items into the canyon. I can’t even imagine the daily effort the Supai people endure just to live & maintain their lifestyles.
The sand was getting thicker under my boots & every step began requiring more strength than the last. At this point the sun was shining, & I was barely protected by the shade from the foliage. I passed a few children & adolescents on the trail, completely amazed by them & wondering what life would be like growing up here. I wondered if they knew how lucky they were to live here.
I began closing in on the final two mile mark when I heard waterfalls. I looked for a clearing to the left & stepped to the edge of the trail, where I saw turquoise waters spilling over at Little Navajo Falls. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was so mesmerized by the colors of the water & the canyon, like complete opposites that looked perfect together. I took a few photos before carrying on, meeting a few of the native adults on my way to the campground. I was making what I hoped was my final descent when I heard another waterfall. The terrain was dirt, sand, stones, & rock, so I carefully stepped ahead & looked over the rocks to my right — and there was the famed Havasu Falls, the 100-foot tall waterfall that was met with turquoise pools. I couldn’t stop smiling, & if memory serves me correctly, I audibly squealed with delight. Every photograph I had ever seen, every video I studied & replayed, was no comparison to seeing this natural wonder in real life. I had to blink furiously to make sure I was really experiencing the falls, to make sure that I wasn’t just dreaming. I took at least 30 photographs before continuing my climb down. All I wanted to do was drop the 32-pound pack & run into the water, which I did when I finally reached the bottom of the trail.
The falls were so loud, I could barely hear my own thoughts. I saw two other groups of hikers, a couple & a group of three men. I propped my pack against a picnic table & began taking photos of the falls. The couple moved down-river to play in the water, while the three men took selfies together. We introduced ourselves & began chatting about the falls when I asked if they were going to attempt Beaver Falls, which is an additional six miles round trip journey. I sensed they were interested, but exhausted, as this was their second & final day in Havasupai. I told them I may go to the falls because I was planning to take the helicopter out the next morning. “The chopper doesn’t fly on Wednesdays,” they said. I was baffled, because the research I had done up to this point had a chopper scheduled for Wednesday that I had planned this trip around catching. I was hoping it was a fluke, & decided I would ask around just in case. Whether or not to attempt Beaver Falls relied heavily on whether or not I was going to have access to a helicopter to take me from Supai to the trailhead. I thanked them for the information & bid them a successful trip home before retreating back to the trail so I could set up camp.
The camping sites were first-come-first-serve, & since I didn’t know about the helicopter, I knew I wanted to be as close to the exit as possible so I could save my legs the next morning. I found a shady spot next to the water, the sounds immediately calming & relaxing. I set up my tent, changed into my swimsuit, packed my extra little 8 liter daypack with supplies, & hit the trail again, but this time in my Chacos. Mooney Falls was definitely happening, & it was a short jaunt from the campground. I expected this waterfall to be grand, but I wasn’t expecting the descent to get there. I took another few (hundred) photos, using the other hikers as models of scale to the magnitude of the falls. At 200 feet tall, Mooney was twice the size of Havasu, with just as fierce of a roar & just as vibrantly blue waters. From the top of the falls, I could see specks of people swimming in the water below, & I could see bigger specks of people climbing through the red rocks & down ladders. I was hoping that was just the adventurous route to Mooney, but as it turns out, that is the only route to Mooney.
I took a few deep breaths & let the canyon swallow me up, taking careful movements to prevent slipping or hitting my head. This was a tiny slot in the canyon. When I made it through, I was able to stand straight up & had an impeccable view of the falls. I continued making my way down the canyon, when my nerves & fears stopped me dead in my tracks. Dear Lord, what have I gotten myself into. I saw chains anchored into the rocks, met with slippery, wooden ladders that were also anchored (sort of) into the rocks. This was the only way down to Mooney, with at least a 50-foot drop if you mishandled the chains or ladders. No harnesses, no securing yourself in any way, shape, or form — just you, the rocks, & the elements.
I can’t accurately explain how I felt in that moment, but writing about it now is making my heart race. I was terrified to the point of being paralyzed, knowing that one slip could easily mean death. I’m not being dramatic; I’m being realistic. I was so close to these falls, I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t want to quit. And I also didn’t want to die. I took a few deep breaths as I reached for the chains & lifted myself off the ledge. One step at a time. This was my maiden journey in my Chacos, & I honestly wasn’t sure how well they would grip the wet rocks & ladders, & this wasn’t exactly the kind of territory to be testing them out on... but I had no other choice. I made it through the first round of chains, catching my breath & trying to wipe the sweat from my hands. I felt tingly all over & my hands were beginning to swell. I repeated over & over in my head about having three points of contact on the rocks at all times, which would help prevent any mishaps. All I could imagine was falling, even when I was hanging on with four points of contact. I didn’t want to look down, but I had to navigate where to put my feet, where to place my hands. I could hear my heartbeat ringing through my ears, & I wanted to just stand there & cry. I wanted a helicopter or a water slide or a piggyback ride to Mooney at this point. I wanted to give up. Despite the fear & the doubt, I continued moving... but I have no idea how. I still can’t decide which was scarier, the chains or the ladders. I assumed the ladders would be the easiest feat, but they were drenched from the falls & slippery like river stones. I found my balance on the rungs & maintained three points of contact going down. By the time I had reached the final ladder, I was so relieved. In that moment, I realized I had been holding my breath during the last chain descent. I let out a gasp as I held the chains with my hands & my feet found the top rung of the ladder. My pinky finger began to throb, & I saw blood oozing from it around the nail. Apparently, I had moved my hand so rapidly from the chains to the ladder that I jammed my pinky finger against the rocks, causing the nail to break below the nail bed & bleed, rather profusely. I held my weight against the ladder & tried to not look down until I felt the bottom of the canyon. When my feet touched the ground, I got away from the ladders as fast as possible before taking in the grandeur of Mooney. And then I drowned my pinky in its cool waters.
Again, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The water looked fake it was so blue, surely someone just dumped a big batch of food coloring in there. No matter how many times I experienced those waters & falls, I was constantly mesmerized. I met up with the same group of men I had met at Havasu Falls & we shared in the same joy of witnessing the natural beauty hidden in the canyon. I took a few hundred photographs, yet they barely touched the majesty of that place. I sat below Mooney Falls for awhile, watching the other people enjoy the wonders of the falls from above & below. I met a group of hikers from California, who highly encouraged me to go to Beaver Falls. I didn’t notice a trail or marked path to get there, but they told me to just “Follow the river” & guaranteed that I would find it. I inquired about the helicopter on Wednesday mornings & they shared the same bad news that man-group had shared: no heli’s on Wednesdays. Crap.
Knowing that I would have to make the 10 mile journey the next morning to the Hilltop made me worried to tack on an additional six miles roundtrip to Beaver Falls, even though everyone I know who has visited recommended that I do that hike. I wrestled with the possible toll it would take on my body. But I was here now. And I had no guarantee that I would ever get back here again... so I went for it, & began the long haul to Beaver Falls.
If you didn’t know Beaver Falls existed before you got to Havasupai, you wouldn’t even know that a trail was in place. Basically, I walked along the river on a small dirt path, until there was nothing but the river in front of me. And then I walked through the river to the other side, where I was met with another small dirt path, that eventually lead to another river-only-access that was met with another small dirt path. You get the picture? The cool water felt incredible on my aching feet, & I was grateful when the river was deep enough to reach my thighs. I hadn’t realized just how sore my body had become until I felt the rush of the cool water on my skin. I had half a mind to turn around, but knew I’d always regret it if I quit.
So, I kept walking. I passed by a few hikers who were returning from Beaver Falls, who solidified that my efforts would not be wasted. After about five jaunts through the blue river, I found a path that guided me through lush, tropical terrain that was so green, the pigment looked fake. I thought for sure I was going to encounter a dinosaur because I felt like I was on a live-action set of Jurassic Park. The foliage consumed the path, but it didn’t bother me because it was so beautiful. I looked to my left & saw two rams enjoying an afternoon snack on the green plants of the canyon. Compared to the rams I have seen in Glacier, these guys looked puny, but they were still an encounter I will always remember. They didn’t seem to mind my presence much either, which was a relief.
As I was taking photographs of the rams, I looked behind me & noticed a familiar bright pink hat making its way through the green overgrowth of terrain. That looks like Mark, I thought. Mark was one of the men I had met earlier in the morning, the group that was considering the trek to Beaver Falls, so I waited for him to catch up. All things considered, I’m really glad I had let Mark catch up to me on the trail, as Beaver Falls would be almost as treacherous as Mooney. We chatted & learned about each other, about his work at a children’s home in Florida (coincidentally, he was familiar with the home I had worked in during the summer of 2007), & how he & his buddies always take trips & hikes together. Second to the scenery, meeting people is my favorite part of traveling. Everyone is on their own journey, but meeting strangers on trails brings significance to the individual journey & the valuable role that other people play in our lives.
We continued carving our way through the canyon, the foliage becoming more vibrant & bright with every step. I can’t tell you how many mini-waterfalls we passed along the way, cascades upon cascades of blue water & green ferns. The sight was seriously unbelievable, I felt like I was in the desert version of Narnia. We reached the largest palm tree I have ever seen, which was the unofficial sign that it was time to cross the water to reach the falls, or climb up the rocks & take in the falls from an overview vantage point. Since Mark was hiking in his boots, we opted the climbing route. Much like Mooney Falls (minus the death-defying terror), we climbed up ladders that were anchored into the rocks, walked through the dust & dirt, & bouldered over some more rocks. We came to a clearing & looked below us where we got our first glimpse of Beaver Falls. The view was impeccable, the sound awe-inspiring, & the colors stopped us in our tracks. Again, we felt a surge of energy & jumped up the other piles of rocks, climbed down ladders, & made our way to the foot of the falls. The water was so cold, I didn’t dare get more than thigh-deep in the water, but the feeling was like instant relief for my feet. I climbed up a few more rocks & found myself balancing on the head of the cascading falls, right before they fell about seven feet to the pool below it. In front of me, a fall... behind me, falls. I loved standing there between the powers of Mother Nature in the most powerful of all the elements. We gazed at the falls in our own quiet solitude for some time before we decided to turn back. The magic of seeing the falls & achieving a goal that I thought may not be possible turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the trip. Few people hike to Beaver Falls, but I can proudly say that I was one of them.
The hike back to the campground was pretty painful as my feet were starting to swell & felt insurmountably sore. The Chacos were incredibly comfortable & I didn’t get a single blister along the journey, but the toe-wrap style I had decided on was beginning to feel uncomfortable only to my big toe. I knew I should’ve bought the more practical pair, I thought. Note to self: Christmas is coming, & there is no such thing as too many Chacos. They make a style sans the toe strap.
To reach the campground, we had to climb back out of the deathly ladders & chains of Mooney Falls. The weather was much cooler in the evening & the water from the falls was ripping through the Canyon, drenching the rocks & ladders we had to climb up. I was relieved to know that Mark was also terrified, so we encouraged each other as we made the ascent. Going up was way easier than going down, but as equally terrifying. We made it to the top & walked to the campground before parting ways. Mark & his buddies were staying in Supai at the lodge, which was another two mile walk for him. He was curious how I traveled with all of my gear, so we chatted about how I made it work & I answered questions he had about my tent (although technically, I’m pretty sure my hiking pack was too large for a carry-on. Shh, don’t tell the others). We exchanged contact information & parted ways, hoping that maybe we’d run into each other again on our hike out of the canyon the next morning.
I setup my JetBoil & prepared my Mountain House Macaroni & Cheese, which was freaking delicious. This was my first ever Mountain House experience, & definitely not the last. I wished I had packed an extra bag or two of food. I couldn’t believe I just had to add boiled water to the bag & wait ten minutes to have a full meal. I snacked on the Goldfish crackers & pretzels as I cleaned up dinner & drank as much water as I could. I found the freshwater in the campground & filled up all of my hydration packs & Hydroflask to prepare for my hike out. I began mentally preparing for the 10 miles I would have to hike the following morning, trying to ignore the pains in my feet & hips. I took some time to stretch my muscles & relax my body. I was reminded of the words of Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” And so began my positive thinking that I was going to make it home just fine. That my body would listen & react once I hit the trail. And that I would accomplish exactly what I had set out to do.
Day Four: The Long Walk Home
I woke up before my alarm, again, around 4:55 A.M. I reached for my headlamp, strapped it to my forehead, & walked to the bathroom for my last opportunity at backcountry indoor plumbing. My legs were tight, my arms were tight, & every inch of me ached, but I still felt oddly powerful. When I came back to camp, I broke down the tent & began loading the gear up piece by piece, taking the time to stretch my body again before loading up. Much like the day before, I used the picnic table to stabilize the pack as I pulled the straps over my shoulders & around my waist. I was having deja vu. Packing up the gear took longer than expected, but I was back on the trail around 6:30 A.M., hoping that the Arizona sun wouldn’t catch up to my lack of spunk & speed. I would gain over 2,000 feet of elevation over the ten miles, which really isn’t that much compared to other hikes I have done. The only difference is that I would be attempting this gain after already hiking 13 miles the day before & with a 32 pound pack strapped to my body. The small elevation gain from the campground back to Supai was enough for me to seek alternative options for getting out of the canyon.
I reached the hospitality office as they were opening, the dirt surrounding the office having been freshly raked into a patterned design. I felt bad approaching the door, as I wanted the dirt to maintain its freshness for the first group of inbound hikers to see. “Can we help you?” A woman asked. I apologized for having to step in the freshly raked dirt & explained that I was looking for a horse to carry my pack out of the canyon. She explained that many of the riders could be heckled to take the bag for a fair price. As she was explaining this, one of the men rode by on fresh horses for a pickup down the road at the lodge. She told me to give her one moment while she tracked him down on the four-wheeler, which made me ecstatic. Within fifteen minutes, she was back with the good news that Running Eagle would take my bag & I could leave the cash with her. I fan-girled a little that the man taking my pack had “Eagle” in his name before I packed a day bag for the hike out. My back felt instant relief as I passed off my pack to the two women in the tourist office & I swung a barely six pound day pack over my shoulders. Oh, Henry Ford, I definitely think I can.
As I made my way through the canyon, I encountered familiar landmarks along the trail. A giant green tree surrounded by red rocks & the rock formations that were impossible to forget. I listened to the crows’ wings overhead, I listened to the horses as they approached & passed me, I felt the intermittent warm sun on my skin with equal gratitude for the coolness of shade in the canyon. I encouraged other hikers making their way to the campground as we passed each other on the trail & gave mental high-fives to each other. Everyone looked so inexplicably happy, & I was reminded that the wild gives us so many gifts: joy, happiness, empowerment, strength, freedom. Gifts that are bought with nothing more than an eager heart & eager feet for something more.
Just by the way we shared in marveling at the stretch of canyon below us that we had conquered thus far. You can, Megan. You can. The switchbacks were just as sharp as I remembered from my descent the day prior. Every few paces, I was gifted a small pocket of shade against the cool rocks of the canyon. I tried not to stop for too long to rest, knowing that the longer I rested, the worse the ascent would become for my lungs & legs. Have you ever done the Manitou Incline in Colorado? Felt a lot like that where you just force your body to keep moving, no matter how slow, just so you don’t give up.
I wanted to give up. My body was completely drained. I had little food left to sustain me, but that’s exactly what my body needed. I stuffed my face with a protein bar that tasted like garbage, I tried filling my belly with salty pretzels, but I felt terrible. I chugged water, having finished my Gatorade at least two miles back. I needed a steak, maybe a little wine, & energy jelly beans... none of which I had.
I could see the Hilltop after rounding one of the final switchbacks. I remember thinking that I still had so far left to go, but immediately remembered how far I had already come. That was enough for me to keep walking. I took another swig of water, continuing the ascent — by no means quickly, remembering that one foot in front of the other will go farther than standing still. Always. Packs of horses passed by me on the trail, & it took a lot of self-control to not hop on their backs unnoticed. And then, it happened: I saw the final push of the trail to the Hilltop. I finally believed all of the words I had hummed to myself: I can do this.
Guys, let me tell you... I have honestly never been more excited to see a porta-potty in my entire life. Seeing that row of blue toilets felt just as amazing as the first time I had seen the falls in Supai. Seeing that row of blue toilets meant that I had accomplished my life’s biggest feat to date. I had solo-hiked 26 miles in barely over one day. As the REI campaign suggests, I was feeling Sweaty. Dirty. Happy.
I met back up with Nancy & exchanged contact information with her before meeting up with Running Eagle. When I saw him, he was using my pack as a means of doing bicep curls, which hurt my ego only slightly. I loathed that pack, but felt immense gratitude for him & his horse, so I shook his hand & told him exactly that. I dropped the pack in the trunk of the mini-van before walking back out to the ledge of the canyon. I wanted to take in this moment, this accomplishment. I wanted to see what I had conquered. I walked to the edge in disbelief & laughed. Expletives may have been muttered as my eyes traced the trail from the Hilltop to the belly of the canyon. I stood in disbelief for a few minutes before taking my eyes off the trail & towards the parking lot. At this moment, I was finally able to feel unexplainable pride & happiness like I had never experienced before. Because I did it. Something I once doubted, something I doubted as it happened, something I never dreamed could actually happen... I did it.
I began the four & one-half hour journey back to Vegas, where I would catch my 5:55 A.M. flight the following morning back to Kalispell, Montana after making a connection in Denver. As I traveled the interstate, I saw a sign for Golden Corral at the approaching exit. And duh, of course I indulged. By mid-day Wednesday, I was moving around about as quickly as the senior folks dining at the restaurant this time of day, which was excellent because we didn’t have to race for the heaping piles of macaroni or mashed potatoes. We just smiled at each other & did the best we could to not fall on our backs like helpless turtles... helpless turtles with overflowing plates, that is.
After filling my belly, I found a laundromat where I could wash my gnarly “Sweaty. Dirty. Happy.” clothes. Also important to note that as a non-rev passenger, I have to abide by a dress code. And those clothes were disgusting by Wednesday. Far cheaper to wash the clothes I had than to buy brand new ones. The only other woman in the laundromat said that her brother had always wanted to live there, but his wife wasn’t fond of the idea, so they never moved there. The story broke my heart, & I immediately felt such relief for my relationship with Ian. That we have had conversations about our life goals, our dreams, & the ways that we can help each other achieve even our craziest of ideas. This trip to Havasu was a prime example, as his wilderness expertise & insight prepared me more than he will ever understand.
I checked into my room at Circus Circus, a hotel that gave me an exclusive discount of $17/night as an airline employee through ID90Travel with free parking to boot. Let me tell you, people in Vegas give you a slew of bizarre looks when you are standing in line to check in & have a pack on your back, smelling like something “fresh” from the sweaty desert, hair full of dust and tree leaves from the trail. Meanwhile everyone else appeared to be in tailored clothing with styled hair & Sephora makeup, smelling of water lilies and sunshine, prepared for an epic night on the town. My idea of epic night on the town at this point was a hot shower & a bucket full of ice. I know. Dreamy, right? I was basically the equivalent of Pig Pen from Peanuts. The hot shower became a distant figment of my imagination, as the water was only running cold from the faucet. The only reason for booking a hotel was so I could have a hot shower. This defeats the purpose! I was frustrated, tired, & hungry (again), so I tried my best to keep my composure as I called the front desk for assistance. One hour later, I was able to step into a steaming hot shower. To finally wash my hair of the dirt & foliage I had picked up along the journey. I stepped out of the shower feeling like a normal human, having shed several layers of desert in the course of my thirty minutes behind a curtain. The instant my face hit the pillow, I was out like a light.
Day Five: Homeward Bound
You know the drill by now. Yup, I was awake before my alarm at 2:57 A.M. I brushed my teeth, threw a hat on, & headed for the parking garage. I passed quite a few drunken folks on my way to the mini-van, which made me chuckle. I loaded up the trunk, got comfortable behind the wheel, & returned the red beast to the van rental office before taking the shuttle back to McCarran International Airport. As I walked through the terminal, my Keen boots leaving a trail of dust in my wake, & my body feeling the strain of the last 48 hours, I had never felt stronger.
I thought about the desert, the waterfalls, the people, & the adventure that had ensued just the day prior. I thought about my fears, insecurities, & reservations that made me question my judgment in deciding to complete this hike in the first place. I was reminded of the powers of the wilderness, of that untamed world that unravels me to my core. Of the peace & solitude I experienced in the sacred corners of all of those wild places. Of the unrelenting strength in her elements that can kill you if you aren’t properly prepared. And of the invaluable, priceless gifts you will receive if you survive her.
Megan Elizabeth is a storyteller based in Kalispell, Montana. Take a peek at her blog & portfolio, drop her a line, & follow her story on Facebook & Instagram.